I can’t get enough of JRPGs. I love the idea of exploring vivid fantasy worlds, beating people up, and getting cool rewards that make me stronger. So, it was almost destiny that I found a franchise that has been under the radar for quite some time: the Ys series. Specifically, I found its most recent installment, Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, for the Nintendo Switch.
In Ys VIII, a plucky teen named Adol is sailing away like Dennis DeYoung until a giant octopus attacks! The crew is then shipwrecked on the mysterious Isle of Seiren. It’s up to Adol and some other people to find a way off the island.
But this is a JRPG, and it’s never that simple… Except that it is. The story of Ys VIII is pretty tame for most of the playthrough. However, once you start the final chapter, it escalates to the genre’s usual ridiculousness. I didn’t really care for it (I almost never do), but it doesn’t intrude on you like some other games. The biggest story flaw is that there’s never a sense of anticipation for the final battle. The final boss is something that you never see until the moment you fight it, unlike- say- Xenoblade 2, where you very consistently see the final boss’ smug-ass face all the way through.
The characters do leave something to be desired. The most interesting case is Adol, of all people. He seems like a pretty generic dude, but based on certain dialogue in the game, it seems that Adol is actually the staple main protagonist of the whole series. In that case, I was probably meant to have grown more attached to him over the course of the other seven games. Meanwhile, your other party members are basically a checklist of anime tropes- Laxia (tsundere), Sahad (down-to-earth old man), Hummel (mysterious guy), etc.- and are only likeable in terms of their use in battle. The side characters are more interesting, especially some of the optional castaways, and it also appears that at least two of them have been party members in past Ys games.
Time for the longest section: gameplay! First off, I should complement how user friendly Ys VIII is. The map is very intuitive, and it tells you a LOT. It shows you where treasures are, how many treasures there are in an area, how much of an area that you’ve explored, and where draw points are. The best part about that last part is that hovering over each draw point on the map tells you exactly what materials it can contain.
They also give you Adol’s journal, which is ridiculously useful. It catalogues EVERYTHING, from quests to tutorials, to monsters, items, and your game percentage. The items catalogue is extremely useful, because it tells you everywhere that you can find them, and even shows what you can get from using them and where to use it at. The only flaw is the fish section, because it only tells you where fish are AFTER you caught it once, making it hell to get 100% in fishing (which is one of the few things I didn’t get all of).
That’s all well and good, but what about combat? Combat is freakin’ lit. Ys VIII is one of those JRPGs where it plays more like a beat-em-up. Instead of random encounters, you fight dudes on the field whenever you see them, and you actually have to physically avoid attacks by moving, and consider the hitboxes of your attacks in order to hit them. Fortunately, enemies don’t have 500000 HP like in a Xenoblade game; in fact, it’s the opposite. Battles go by swiftly and never feel like they take forever, even if you do end up playing the long con. Oh, and make sure you lock-on by pressing X. Fortunately, there’s an option for the game to auto-lock-on, including the ability for it to auto-lock-on to the nearest additional enemy on the field after you kill your current one. Plus, a certain item in the game will have locked-on enemies DISPLAY THEIR DROP ITEMS ON THE HUD. I LOVE THIS FEATURE and more JRPGs need to do it!
Fighting itself is incredibly simple and fun. You choose three out of the six party members to have in your active party, and control one of them. The other two are A.I., but fortunately, they aren’t as bad as most JRPG A.I.s; in fact, they take a lot less damage that way (thank goodness!). You can also switch between them on the fly with the Y button, and good thing too, for enemies have many different strengths and weaknesses. Each character attacks with one of three elements across all of their moves: Slash, Pierce, and Strike. Enemies can be weak to any of these three elements. If you hit enemies with their weak points enough, it’ll inflict Break on them, which reduces their defenses to nothing (kind of like Octopath Traveler). There are some enemies that have no weaknesses, though, especially bosses. Don’t worry; there’s also the stun gauge. Hitting enemies with any attack will fill up their stun gauge, and when it’s full, they’ll be knocked out for a short time and you’ll be able to just wail on them.
The combat is at its best when it comes to how skills work in the game. You have regular attacks that you do with A, and it builds up your SP meter shown on the bottom right. Mashing A sucks, though. In fact, it’s encouraged to wait until you build up a charged attack (indicated by glowing blue). These are a bit stronger, but most importantly, they fill up a TON of the SP meter. Skills are used by pressing R and whatever face button they are assigned to. The best part of skills in Ys VIII is that they have no cooldown; as long as you have SP, you can spam them like crazy. I LOVE doing this; it feels so stinking good to do, especially in a large group of enemies with a big AOE skill. There’s also the Extra Skill gauge, which fills up over time and by using attacks. By pressing R and L together will unleash your character’s big attack, and these can be lifesavers at the right time. But since L is dodge, you might accidentally use it in a panic of trying to move out of the way of an attack.
Whaling on people with skills feels good, but it doesn’t feel quite as good as Flash Move or Flash Guard. The former is done by pressing L to dash just before getting hit by an attack, which makes you briefly invincible, faster, and increases SP restoration. That’s all well and good, but the better of the two is Flash Guard. It also makes you invincible, but during it, all attacks become crits. It’s riskier to do, for you have to press the R button just before getting hit. Fortunately, you’re pretty likely to do it just by spamming skills like normally. Also, if the enemy uses a long-lasting attack, you can use Flash Move, then run into the attack and mash R to build up a stack of Flash Guards.
If I have to give Ys VIII any props, it’s the amazing way they handle status effects. Instead of being based on RNG, status effects are based on cumulative hits. What this means is that in order to be, say, poisoned, you have to take enough hits from a poison-inflicting attack to get poisoned. This is a really brilliant way to do status effects that actually demands more skill from the player. You can also equip some items that allow you to inflict status effects on enemies as well (bosses are immune as always, though). The most helpful effect by far is freeze, for that keeps enemies frozen solid and makes all attacks on them into crits until they thaw out. Fortunately, there are items to defend against status effects, as there always are.
Ys VIII isn’t all beating people up; this is a JRPG after all. While the Isle of Seiren is disappointingly linear, they at least programmed it so that each area seamlessly transitions into another. Also, there’s the Adventuring Gear system. This is basically like having Zelda items in a JRPG: equip them and you can do things like climb vines or breathe underwater. You can easily open the menu for this by pressing ZL. While it’s not that tedious to reequip the different Gear repeatedly, there are items that increase your capacity, which is nice.
After whooping some butt, you probably gotta head back to Castaway Village to rest up. Fortunately, the game has plenty of skip travel points in the form of insta-healing crystals found everywhere, plus you can instantly warp back home by pressing + at any time on the map. Castaway Village is the only town, which does bug me as someone who loves the sensation of seeing what each new town in a JRPG has to offer. Fortunately, there’s more than enough to do here… as long as you save the Castaways.
Castaways are found all over Seiren, some of whom are required to find, some of whom are optional. It’s not difficult to actually look for them as long as you explore, and the captain’s parrot will go ahead and mark points of interest on the map regularly. These guys are really important, for a lot of them have rudimentary mechanics, such as smithing and brewing potions.
There’s also quests. These are your typical JRPG quests, but they can expire. Fortunately, as long as you’re diligent, you won’t miss any. They are important, for they also increase Approval, which is important for a mechanic I’ll touch on later. Maxing out people’s approval unlocks cute cutscenes with them as well. There’s also the mechanic of showing the world map to the captain, for each 10% increment of the world explored nets you an award. Obviously, you want to do this. Most notably, some quests allow you to explore previous locations at night. They might as well be entirely new areas, for they become chock full of newer and tougher enemies than in the daytime.
Doing quests boosts Adol’s Reputation, which you can check in his journal. This determines the ending you get. Yes, a 60-hour game, with missable sidequests, has multiple endings, one of which is the de facto True Ending. Like I said, being thorough will give you more than enough rep to get the True Ending. Keep in mind that the game scares you a lot with the sidequests. First off, some early quests can’t be done immediately, even when they’re unlocked, which can be scary (but rest assured, you’ll definitely be able to get them). Second off, the game holds you off until just before you enter the final boss’ door. The room that you fight him in also counts toward map completion, but fortunately, they let you warp out of there as long as you don’t trigger the fight.
Since Seiren is an island cut off from the rest of the world, there’s no money! Here, resources are money. Every material you can get is able to be traded up for something better, or traded down for a bunch of low-level materials. This really sells the immersion of Ys VIII, plus it also gives you more incentive to keep your crappy materials on you. There are also a lot of great exclusive items that are only found in trades, so be diligent!
But things aren’t always peas and carrots here; monsters are afoot! Every so often, Castaway Village will get Raided, and you gotta help. Raids are the most fun and most agonizing parts of Ys VIII at the same time. The mechanics for them are fun, at least. You fight off waves of enemies and keep them from attacking the village. Castaways can also assist with their own skills. They can be lifesavers, especially the one who temporarily makes all skills cost 0 SP, and they get boosted as their Approval increases. The people aren’t the only things supporting you; we have literal supports in the form of barricades and lures to draw aggro. There’s also a gong that inflicts stun to all enemies on the field when struck, and is a real lifesaver. You can also upgrade these barricades with resources, and IT’S IMPORTANT TO DO IT unless you hate yourself.
In addition to Raids are Hunts, which is where the village goes on the offensive. It gets a lot more high-maintenance here. In Hunts, you gotta fight off infinitely spawning enemies and place torches to reduce their defense, while attacking their spawn points. Defeating all of them unlocks the boss, which can run away and waste time on the mission. These suck, honestly. This is also a case where auto lock-on can mess you up, because you’ll be fighting through one group of enemies, and after you kill them, it could lock-on to someone behind you and disorient you. Fortunately, the ones that actually count toward quests aren’t too bad; it’s the reduxes that spawn afterward that are REALLY bad.
Raids and Hunts are fun, but only if you want to just beat them at all. There are Sonic-style rankings, and it can get stingy sometimes. You gotta SERIOUSLY be good at the game in order to S-Rank some of these, which stinks, because you get REALLY good rewards for doing it. At the very least, none of the stupid hard Raids give you important rewards for S-Rank. Worst case, you can just do them stupidly overleveled in order to get an easy rank.
“Hang on a second,” you interrupt. “You’ve been talking about this game for how long, and you haven’t even mentioned the titular Dana! Who is that anyway?” Dana is the cute, blue-haired girl on the cover (who has way better character design than Adol). She’s my favorite party member in the game, but you don’t quite recruit her the same way; after all, she’s lived about a million years in the past. Like in Final Fantasy VIII, you can switch over to her and experience things in her era.
During these sequences, Ys VIII is almost an entirely different game. Dana is the only character you play as, and has mechanics exclusive to her era. Most notable is her ability to change fighting styles, which you unlock at specific points in the story. This is how you attack weaknesses as Dana by herself. It’s pretty simple; the DPS form, the tanking form, and the agility form. Periodically throughout her arc, you can slowly uncover more of the Sanctuary Crypt, an optional dungeon with several puzzle chambers, that give you a lot of context for the game’s lore. The game has a checklist for each task in the different sections of her story, and it’s recommended to do all of it (especially since it’s not that tough to do).
If there’s any gameplay flaw, it’s that the difficulty spikes right at the end. The main story remains a fair challenge, but some of the side stuff expects a LOT out of you. The worst part is a series of Raids with enemies from level 70 to 85 that get unlocked when your party would be around 60. These are tough. VERY TOUGH. I can’t even imagine how to beat these Raids on the game’s highest difficulty. But like I said, they’re all optional. Just do them if you hate yourself.
But even after you beat the game, you are still encouraged to return to it for postgame junk! All you gotta do is save your clear data in a slot, and load the file from the title screen. It’ll give you the option to do New Game+, or do reload just before the final boss with all your stuff from after you beat it (good thing it actually gives EXP). After this, a couple of things open up. One is a bonus dungeon, which is a really fun challenge and a great grinding spot. There’s also… the final Raid, with enemies in the level 90s. I never did that Raid, for obvious reasons.
Ys VIII, visually, is a BIT behind on the times. I don’t know what this was ported from, but it’s not that great-looking. Artistically, it has some beautiful vistas and great vibrant colors. But the textures are very dated, and look pixelated at times. Normally, I don’t care about game resolution like Rock Star does, but the way Ys VIII looks can actually hurt your eyes. There is one room that has bad slowdown, and one single incident where the game froze on me. It’s not unplayable, though. Most of the time, the game runs at a stable frame rate.
One thing I seriously did not expect to enjoy was Ys VIII’s soundtrack. WOW, what an amazing soundtrack! This game has it all, from upbeat rockin’ tunes, to atmospheric stuff. The music for Raids and Hunts, as well as the special nighttime music, are among my favorite tracks in the game. If only they released this on iTunes and stuff!
Final Verdict: 9/10
Ys VIII might not be very original, but the ball gets rolling at a fast enough pace to make it less of a chore than most JRPGs. I recommend it if you’re a JRPG fan who’s tired of the genre’s tedium, and just wants to break stuff.